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Meryl Streep Offers Barnard Grads Directionless Inspiration

05/18/2010 04:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Monday, I graduated--well, not officially--along with about 600 of my Barnard College classmates. And Meryl Streep was there to bring us to the other side.

Together we sat on plastic chairs, forming a sea of baby blue mortarboards spread over a cinderblock plaza nestled between Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, the Law School and a dormitory building. The drab wall of the dorm became a makeshift stage, though the venue was a step up from the gym. Streep, who graduated from Vassar when it was still a single-sex school, came to address the Class of 2010 and receive Barnard's Medal of Distinction--one of the few awards the prolific Oscar-gatherer had not yet won.

Before the procession of degree candidates, the ethereal Streep stopped to pose with a group of eager grads. From that moment on, she came across as infinitely likable, genuine and natural--qualities that may or may not have been undermined by her acting record, which have included an array of roles ranging from wilting ingenues to boardroom women. She sat in front of us in full academic regalia, wearing a black robe with a brownish hood to represent her MFA from Yale.

After outgoing Trustees Chair and writer Anna Quindlen spoke, Streep, who starred in "One True Thing," a 1998 film based on Quindlen's novel, patted her on the back. She seemed at ease, laughing at various jokes along with Barnard President Debora Spar, who sat on her other side.

As for the speech itself, Streep steered clear of commencement cliches. Instead, she picked up several hefty threads--self-examination, the empathetic value of acting, the troubles of success, the changing status of women--only to drop them before moving on. At one point, she qualified her description of developing an on-screen kissing technique as "randomly like everything else in this speech." This jumping around has been the biggest criticism among audience-members.

Her self-deprecating one-liners, of course, such as "I am however an expert in pretending to be an expert in various areas," prompted streams of laughter.

She first opined on success and its limits. "People think success breeds enlightenment and you are duty-bound to spread it around like manure. Fertilize those young minds," she said. "The self-examination begins. ... One opens an interior door. Cobwebs."

Then she moved onto women's predisposition to theater: "Women are better at acting than men. Why? Because we have to be," she said. "If successfully convincing someone bigger than you are of something he doesn't want to know is a survival skill, this is how women have survived."

Acting, and her pursuit of the art, is "imagined possibility. Pretending or acting is a very valuable life skill and we all do it all the time. ... It's part of the adaptation of our species. We change who we are."

She then began to narrate her career, zooming in on a moment that taught her this lesson. At age six, she created a miniature Nativity Scene with her siblings, placing her mother's slip over her head to portray the Virgin Mary. "I felt quiet, holy, actually," Streep said. She realized the power of her focus, and how it entranced her siblings. Another similar moment came three years later, when she used her mother's eyebrow pencil to draw on replicas of her grandmother's wrinkles. She felt "weighted down but cheerful," she said. She discovered that empathy was the key to acting.

She used this skill to create a character of "the generically pretty high school girl" to win the attractions of both guys and girls. "I worked on my giggle. I lightened it," she said, demonstrating. Internally, too, she quelled her "bossy" self to cultivate a "breezy, natural sense of sweetness."

"I convinced myself that I was this person and she, me," Streep said. But at Vassar, where there were no men, she made some friends and rediscovered herself. "Outside of any competition for boys, my brain woke up," she said. "I found myself again. I didn't have to pretend. ... I didn't wash my hair for three weeks once."

Still, she stored the high school character, reviving it for the role of Linda in "The Deer Hunter." Shy, attractive, and pitiful, men fell in love with the Linda. As Bill Clinton once told Streep, Linda became Streep's favorite character among men of his age.

Segueing into a point about the changing world, Streep said men now cite her performance as the Anna Wintour-esque Miranda Priestley in "The Devil Wears Prada" as their favorite.

"They feel sorry for Linda but they feel like Miranda," Streep said. "They stand outside one character and they pity her and they kind of fall in love with her but they look through the eyes of this other character."

The change is a "huge deal," Streep said, because it represents a shift in paradigm in which men can see eye to eye with powerful, and not only weak, women. "Men are adapting--it's about time," she said.

"The door into this emotional shift is empathy," she said, without quite saying how.

She then gave a nod to Barnard's status as the nation's most selective women's college. "You are people who may be able to draw on a completely different perspective, to imagine a different possibility than women and men who went to coed schools. How this difference is going to really serve you is hard to quantify now," she said. "It may take you 40 years like it did me to look back and analyze your advantage. But today is about looking forward."

Streep winded down by returning to the theme of self-discovery. "Being a celebrity has taught me to hide. But being an actor has opened my soul," Streep said. "Being here today has forced me to look around inside me for something useful that I can share with you."

"You don't have to be famous," Streep concluded. "You just have to make your mother and father proud of you, which you already have."

My parents, who, admittedly, couldn't see much from their seats, found the first half wildly entertaining but the second half a rambling snoozer. But at 12 feet away, I was spellbound, hanging onto her every word--as were my peers, apparently, who gave her a standing ovation. I'm not sure how often that happens at commencement. I left inspired, but unsure of where the inspiration led.

From my view in the second row, Streep seemed to be tearing up from behind the blue-tinted sunglasses that never left her eyes. I wasn't sure what to believe, especially after her ruminations on acting. But Spar, Barnard's president, was choked up, too. Spar, a scholar in economics and author of "The Baby Business," does not act professionally (to my knowledge).

Oh, Meryl. I, along with a few of my Barnard '10 pals, wish you had elaborated on each of these gems. Or at least chosen a specific few to focus on. But maybe that's the point. That life, too, is incoherent. Within a single address, you assume different roles and themes and avoid cliche. There was no imperative to "seize the moment" or "commit your lives to service." Rather, things change, and people do, too. It's worth paying attention to them and admitting when you don't understand. That, perhaps, was her somewhat-buried message.